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The Critic's Notebook for October 5, 2015

by Benjamin Riley

Posted: Oct 06, 2015 10:03 AM

The Chicago skyline, via


Sign up to receive “Critic's Notebook” in your inbox every week—it only takes a few seconds and it's completely free! “Critic's Notebook” is a weekly preview of the best to read, see, and hear in New York and beyond, compiled by the editors of The New Criterion.


This week: Richard Wagner, Roger Scruton, and Salman Rushdie.

FictionTwo Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, by Salman Rushdie (Random House): There’s a lot going on in Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, whose title is a clever play on the Thousand and One Nights (do the math). There are apocalyptic storms, levitations, children of djinn, and an ongoing debate between ancient philosophers. If anyone can pull this off it’s Rushdie, whose ambition for telling great tales that cross genres has never wavered. The novel is unapologetically about ideas, namely the ongoing tension between reason and superstition. We know which side the author is on, but that shouldn’t deter readers in the slightest. The joy lies in seeing how Rushdie gets there. —BR

Nonfiction: Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, by Roger Scruton (Bloomsbury USA): The conjunction of title and subtitle says it all, or almost all. Really to get the full picture you have to savor the exhibition, the mordant setting forth and meticulous anatomy of foolishness and intellectual fraudulence that the English philosopher performs with his signature wit, clarity, and erudite thoroughness on his chosen subject. Eric Hobsbawm and E. P. Thompson, those Commie hacks; Sartre and Foucault, who once held the world mesmerized; the Teutonic fog of Jürgen Habermas, that joy of the professoriate; the inanities and obfuscations of Althusser, the old wife-killer; and Lacan and Deluze: what a malodorous graveyard of putrefying bad ideas and murderous political spleen! Scruton does for them all, with an elegance and instinct for the jugular that command admiration and, almost, a certain pitying contempt for his victims. This splendid volume concludes with a brilliant overview of the fetid precincts of the Left from Antonio “long-march-through-the-institutions” Gramsci to Edward “Orientalism” Said and, finally, a glimpse of sunlit uplands in pondering the question “What Is Right?” Written with passion and masterly command, Fools, Frauds and Firebrands is as enjoyable as it is illuminating. —RK

Architecture: The Chicago Architecture Biennial (Through January 3, 2016), featuring “The Chicago Tradition in Architecture: Inspiration or Artifact?” (October 9–10): Beginning this week and continuing through January 3, 2016, Chicago is hosting its first city-wide architecture biennial. The setting of such a biennial could not be more appropriate, in what is arguably America's premier architectural city, but just what role the city's great architectural legacy should play in the future of design remains an open question. As part of the Biennial, the Chicago-based Driehaus Foundation is organizing a conference this weekend on this very topic, called "The Chicago Tradition in Architecture: Inspiration or Artifact?" The Driehaus conference is already at capacity, but readers should look for some of the resulting discussion in an upcoming issue of The New Criterion—JP

Music: Carnegie Hall's Opening Night Gala with the New York Philharmonic (October 7) and Tannhäuser, by Richard Wagner, at the Metropolitan Opera, conducted by James Levine (October 8–31): It's hard to decide this week between two promising weeknight evenings: Carnegie Hall will give us the last major opening of the season, leading off with the premiere of a concert overture by Magnus Lindberg, part of the organization's new initiative to commission and present new compositions. Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic will be joined by the hot-blooded pianist Evgeny Kissin for Tchaikovsky's immortal Piano Concerto No. 1, and the concert will close with Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2.

Meanwhile, James Levine makes his first appearance of the season at the Met, conducting Wagner's Tannhäuser. The company's music director has excelled particularly in Wagnerian opera during his storied career, and during this run he will lead a superb cast that includes Johan Botha, Eva-Maria Westbroek, and Peter Mattei. —ECS

Theater: Bonfire of the Vanities: The Opera (October 9–10): The Masters of the Universe of the 1980s are taking the stage for the first time this Friday and Saturday with the world premiere of Bonfire of the Vanities: The Opera at El Teatro at Museo del Barrio. Tom Wolfe's sweeping, epochal novel of New York colliding at the crossroads of Wall Street and the South Bronx has been transformed into a stage production with music by Stefania de Kenessey and libretto and direction by Michael Bergmann. Randal Turner plays the bond trader Sherman McCoy alongside Anne-Carolyn Bird as Judy McCoy, Keith Miller as Reverend Bacon, Adrienne Danrich as the idealistic lawyer, and Yingjie Zhou as Sherman's mistress. —JP

Support our friends: The Thriving Society: On the Social Conditions of Human Flourishing (The Witherspoon Institute): From a variety of perspectives and with diverse expertise, The Thriving Society essayists discuss foundational issues, institutional challenges, and controversial policies. Many cluster around five entities or institutions fundamental to a free and prosperous society: the person, the family, law and government, universities, and economic organizations. Additional essays cover religion, family law, foreign policy, and healthcare policy. The book opens with essays on first principles. The differences among the authors in topic and perspective produce a lively if often implicit debate among intellectual friends. In this respect, perhaps they model the kind of society they anticipate or promote.

From the archive: Sound & fury, by Brooke Allen: On the subject of Salman Rushdie, Brooke Allen offers thoughts on his early work and the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwah against him.

From our latest issue: Updike's naked poetry, by Brad Leithauser: New in our October issue, a review of John Updike’s verse. 

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In case you missed it

by Benjamin Riley

Posted: Oct 02, 2015 10:57 AM

Boris Johnson, via


Recent links of note:

Why Bloomberg Won't Run for President
John Fund, National Review
Though Donald Trump may not be our ideal version of a “political outsider,” his ascendance proves that America’s appetite for a third-party candidate who exists outside of the traditional Republican/Democrat paradigm is strong. For many practical conservatives, the seemingly ideal candidate in that mold is the former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, a man of actual (rather than purported) wealth, committed to seeking out real solutions to the festering sore that is American politics. So will he run? Probably not, explains John Fund. The road to victory for a third party candidate is just too long. Alas.

When Political Punditry Was Born
James Panero, City Journal
This year marks the release, and revisiting, of what many consider to be a seminal moment in television history: ABC's debates between William F. Buckley Jr and Gore Vidal. In their film, Best of Enemies, Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville bring the famous debates to a contemporary audience that may only know them through dinner party whispers; 1968 seems like a long time ago, indeed. Much has been said about the debates: how Buckley lost his cool, how Vidal "played dirty," but the only way to assess these conjectures is to actually see the film. In the meantime, City Journal has an analysis from our own James Panero on the effects of the debate on what we now call "political punditry." 

Boris in the wilderness
James Forsyth, The Spectator
The historical counterfactual is a fun game: What would have happened had the American’s not gained independence in 1776?; What if William hadn’t conquered Britain?, et cetera. This week’s thought experiment: what if the Tories hadn’t won a clear majority in the most recent British elections? James Forsyth suggests that Boris Johnson would have acceded to the Conservative Party Leadership. But now it’s George Osborne who’s likely to carry the day. The matter isn’t settled though, and, as Forsyth notes, “favourites, notoriously, tend not to win Tory leadership contests.” And so the speculation continues.

First hearings held in the Hague over alleged cultural heritage war crimes
Victoria Stapely-Brown, The Art Newspaper
Finally some good news regarding the rampant destruction by Islamists of culturally important sites: Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi has been “charged with war crimes related to the destruction of cultural heritage under the Rome Statute.” Al Mahdi is the first to be charged with such a crime, but one hopes not the last. I’ve commented previously in this space on the West’s spineless behavior in regards to culture-destroying terrorists and this marks a good start. But if we’re only to apprehend these cretins after the fact, don’t we risk losing more landmarks, like we did recently in Palmyra? If the international community is serious about protecting our cultural heritage then their measures will need to be more proactive than reactive.

From our pages:

Coates Contra Mundum
Anthony Daniels
A review of Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.


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Bard News

by James Bowman

Posted: Sep 30, 2015 02:18 PM

Professor John McWhorter, via


He’s at it again. The Wall Street Journal at the weekend ran another piece by Professor John McWhorter of Columbia heralding the increasingly common theatrical practice of translating the plays of Shakespeare into simpler, more contemporary language in order to facilitate comprehension. Or at least what audiences wishing to be spared the trouble of understanding what Shakespeare actually wrote believe is comprehension. It is Dr. McWhorter’s purpose to flatter that belief and to reassure those who want Shakespeare without difficulty, Shakespeare pre-digested for easy swallowing, that they are quite right to do so.

But Shakespeare is difficult, and if he is not difficult he is not Shakespeare anymore. Any translation is not the genuine article but something adapted to the audience’s own presumptively limited capacity to understand him. In the name of “accessibility” it is not to be allowed to make up its own mind about his meaning but rather to be left undisturbed in the naïve assumption that he thought and spoke and wrote very much as we do about the world. Those who have taught Shakespeare to young people know the result. They do not actually learn anything about him or the times in which he wrote or the people he wrote about or for, but instead are merely confirmed in their own prejudices and encouraged to congratulate themselves for being so by their association with the Shakespearean “brand.”

“Shakespeare’s English is so far removed from the English of 2015 that it often interferes with our own comprehension,” writes Professor McWhorter. But isn’t this a bit like saying that the differential calculus is so far removed from simple arithmetic that it interferes with our comprehension? Well, yes. But it is our comprehension of it, not of arithmetic, which is in question. You do not facilitate the comprehension of something by translating it into something else, you only confuse it further, for in the new struggle to comprehend whatever the something else is, you have simply abandoned your attempt to comprehend the thing that has been translated.

Here is a professor, which once implied a person with something to profess, a body of knowledge which it was his job to impart to others, telling us that Shakespeare qua Shakespeare must simply be given up. “We cannot reach up to a meaning that is no longer available to us,” he claims in The Wall Street Journal. No longer available to us? He himself has just explained the meaning to us—in this case by noting that “generous” in Shakespeare often meant “noble.” It’s certainly available to him then. What kind of patronizing nonsense is it for a professor to tell us that we cannot hope to match his own scholarly attainments and had better turn instead to Shakespeare for dummies?

But Dr. McWhorter professes not Shakespeare nor even English but something called “linguistics,” a relatively new academic discipline founded on the assumption that linguistic reality lies not in the words and larger linguistic structures of any actually existing language but at the level of certain hypothetical “deep structures” of the human brain which transcend linguistic particularity and thus constitute a kind of already existing, in-born universal language of which the language that we actually speak—or our ancestors spoke—can only ever be an translation itself.

Since, therefore, Shakespeare himself is only a translation of something else, we may be supposed to do him and his meanings no violence by translating them into the words which we must suppose he would write today, if he were writing in today’s English. Doubtless it is his pride in his own knowledge of linguistics which makes Professor McWhorter, or any of Professor McWhorter’s students, so confident of reproducing exactly what Shakespeare meant to write. Those of us with more experience of traditional literary translation or criticism will remain much less confident that what Shakespeare meant is so easily recoverable, or recoverable at all.

The professor’s most recent book is called The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language. It is intended to disprove what he regards as the naive perception of past scholars—known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis—that language colors thought and so to demonstrate, in the words of his publisher’s summary, “that all humans process life the same way, regardless of their language.” I find the proposition, besides betraying the book’s (and linguistics’) utopian-universalist assumptions, self-refuting, since the words “process life” are not translatable into any other existing language but the academic idiolect—and certainly not into Shakespearean English.


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"The March in Memory: From Selma to Montgomery"

by Benjamin Riley

Posted: Sep 30, 2015 11:29 AM



Criterion Books, an imprint of The New Criterion, is excited to introduce to you Peter Pettus’s fascinating The March In Memory: From Selma to Montgomery. The photographs collected in this volume were taken during the 1965 Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Never before published, this is the work of an artist photographer who wanted to tell the story directly and simply, not as a photojournalist, but as a participant in this national and political demonstration. The camera looks deep into the faces of those who were there—black, white, old, young, Northern, and Southern—at the time when America approached one of its greatest times of crisis.

The pictures unfold here as a narrative. As the March moves along, we see participants and bystanders depicted in dramatic shades of black and white. Passing through the towns, people gather to wave, not quite believing what they are seeing. The expressions on these faces reflect a vast range of emotions: hope, fear, doubt, and joy. We see, as the March approaches Montgomery, the hundreds who have spontaneously joined up. The final photographs of the huge crowd streaming into the Capitol express the power of those words: “I Have a Dream.”

Peter's book is now available on Amazon.

 Our own James Panero also interviewed Peter on this historic event and the genesis of his book, which can be listened to below.


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Preludes without fugues

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Sep 29, 2015 02:12 PM


Yundi is the pianist who used to be known as Yundi Li. Lately, he has made a bid to become the best-known one-named pianist since Solomon (the great British pianist, born Solomon Cutner, who lived from 1902 to 1988). Or maybe I should say Liberace?

Yundi was born in China in 1982. Eighteen years later, he won the Chopin competition in Warsaw, becoming the youngest person ever to do so. Since then, he has been known particularly for his playing of Chopin.

He has now recorded the Preludes, which is to say, the twenty-four preludes classified as Op. 28. Chopin completed two others. Yundi appends those as bonuses.

Chopin wrote his famous twenty-four in the late 1830s. There is one prelude in each of the twenty-four keys (twelve major and twelve minor). Unlike Bach, Chopin did not write fugues—just the preludes. More than a century later, Shostakovich, following Bach, would write both preludes and fugues.

Chopin’s preludes are, among other things, brief. Putting it differently, they are marvels of brevity. Almost all of them last under two minutes. Many last under a minute. There is one long one—or “long” one—lasting almost five minutes. This is the beauty in D-flat major, nicknamed the “Raindrop.”

As longtime readers know, I’m forever complaining about the completeness craze (as I call it). People think, mistakenly, that they have to play all of a category. There is no reason—none—to play all four of Chopin’s Scherzos in a row. And there is good reason not to. There is no reason—none—to play all four of Chopin’s Ballades.

But how about the Preludes? Are they a set? Frankly, they work both as individual pieces, or pieces to be played in clusters, and as a complete set. But people are afraid to play just a few of something now. They fear that musicologists or critics will jump down their throats.

Chopin’s first prelude, the one in C major, is both a wonderful piece on its own and a wonderful opener. This composer knew what he was doing. The C-major is a piece for which the word “gladsome” was invented. How does Yundi play it? Pretty well, though there is a certain tension, a certain over-muscularity.

Let me assure you that I will not critique all twenty-four tracks (or twenty-six, counting the bonuses). But I will make some generalities (and add some more specifics to boot).

Yundi is most successful, I think, when the preludes are fast, rippling, and virtuosic. He is less successful when they are slow and songful. Now and then, I can virtually see the hammers go up and down. That is, Yundi could use greater legato, a better sense of cantabile. There is a certain tightness in his playing, which does Chopin no favors.

Take the Prelude in B minor. It should really melt—but does not quite do so in these hands.

Tempo is important in these pieces, and Yundi has an admirable sense of it. The Prelude in E minor, for example, is thankfully not too slow. It is marked Largo, but it must move. And it still has its poignancy at a moving tempo.

What about the Prelude in C minor, that fat, stout, chordy thing? Yundi plays it with due fatness and stoutness. But he pounds just a little. How about the “Raindrop”? It’s not simple enough for me; it is a little on the fussy side. Also, it’s not glassy enough for me; it’s a little on the choppy side. This prelude should entrance, and it does not, or at least it didn’t for me on first hearing.

We are in the realm of the subjective. And let me say that Yundi always plays creditably, and you will want to judge for yourself (although you are kind to take my word for it).

This is a short album, at just under thirty-nine minutes. I used to think of CDs as lasting about an hour and twenty minutes. Is this new CD a rip-off? I honestly don’t know. I don’t know whether many people buy CDs anymore. We live in a world of downloads and whatnot. To people under thirty, is a CD like an LP?

One thing this new CD did was make me appreciate the Chopin Preludes anew. They are ingenious pieces. When I was a kid, I loved Chopin. Then I went through a period of snobby anti-Romanticism. These days, I appreciate Chopin’s genius more than ever.

I looked up what Wikipedia has to say about the twenty-four Preludes, and read a quotation by Henry Finck, an American music critic who lived from 1854 to 1926. “If all piano music in the world were to be destroyed, excepting one collection, my vote should be cast for Chopin’s Preludes.”

Wow. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I understand.


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The Critic's Notebook for September 28, 2015

by Benjamin Riley

Posted: Sep 29, 2015 09:34 AM

Tony Curanaj, The Gumball Incident, 2015, oil on canvas, 28x15.5 in/ Courtesy: Eleventh Street Arts


Sign up to receive “Critic's Notebook” in your inbox every week—it only takes a few seconds and it's completely free! “Critic's Notebook” is a weekly preview of the best to read, see, and hear in New York and beyond, compiled by the editors of The New Criterion.


This week: Bores, Bluets, and Anne Boleyn.

FictionLondon Lit Weekend (October 3–4): There is, in theory, little more tedious than the literary festival. The very phrase conjures up images of two types of bores, each insidious on its own but even more tiresome in concert. The first is the specialist, that narrowly focused academe who manages to turn all conversations into a distressing enumeration of the topic at hand’s relation to his own work. The other is— for lack of a better term—the “lit groupie,” that enthusiastic reader of all the newest fiction, who just can’t wait to tell you about his pet theory on the way that, “when you really think about it, it all comes back to Virginia Woolf, doesn’t it?” So why am I recommending a literature festival this week? Because when something like this is directed by the TLS and sponsored by Hatchard’s, the experience has a real chance to transcend the usual boilerplate programming. With a series of talks addressing questions such as “How did writers respond to Thatcher?” and “Why do the French delude themselves about their past?,” the weekend promises to be a serious but not entirely humorless exercise in the intellectual arts, much like the TLS itself. Readers with the good fortune to be in London would be well advised to find themselves at Kings Place this upcoming weekend. —BR

Nonfiction: Jack Kemp: The Bleeding-Heart Conservative Who Changed America, by Morton Kondracke and Fred Barnes (Sentinel): Anyone who's watched an entire football game will have realized that football announcers (and fans) love to reminisce about some of the game’s more influential players. One such player—Jack Kemp—certainly left his mark on football history, though his legacy now primarily rests in a different arena. Morton Kondracke and Fred Barnes give us the first extensive biography of the star quarterback/Congressman/“bleeding heart conservative” whose economic policies changed the Republican party. Many of Kemp’s ideas are still being debated, some are now irrelevant, but his controversial claim in 2006 that soccer is “still boring” is still true. —RH

Poetry: Bluets, by Maggie Nelson (Wave Books): As summer dilutes into autumn, which will unwillingly wade into winter, some of us are unable to refrain from feeling blue. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets confronts us with a similar blue, one that does not have any identifiable pigmentation or specific emotional connotation. It is just blue. And it is this blue that she writes about for nearly 90 pages, ruminating on divisions and divinities of color with statements such as, "I must admit that not all blues thrill me. I am not overly interested in the matte stone of turquoise, for example, and a tepid, faded indigo usually leaves me cold.” In plain moments like these, sadly, we’re not so thrilled either.

But Bluets is also filled with plenty of perplexed promiscuity and cross-genre flip-flopping, a delicacy for any contemporary poet’s palate attracted to wandering ideas grounded only slightly in one faint connection: you guessed it, blue. Is it a sense? A smell? An allusion to idyllic grandeur? Not even Maggie Nelson knows. The poems, paragraphs, diary entries, whatever they may be, are so conscious of their consciousness that readers are unsure if they are lost in lucid dreaminess or nettled in a maze of Nelson’s personal torture, the chambers of which are her self-appointed shortcomings. When Nelson restrains the Freudian readings of herself and rather just says the damn thing, blue becomes less deluging and more delicate. This is where the piece prospers most, when it is most poetic. As she veers away from garbled prose, she succeeds with lines such as, "Sometimes I worry that if I am not moved by a blue thing, I may be completely despaired, or dead. At times I fake my enthusiasm. At others, I fear I am incapable of communicating the depth of it." If only she would worry less about communicating depth and just bring us in deeper, perhaps she would have a better chance at redeeming the overly narrative story from itself. But not all is lost. When Nelson does approach the color with subtlety rather than racing to retrieve it, the boring moments of blue are stifled and we finally find something worthy of reading—big, blue diamonds buried in the rough. —ID

Art: “The Still Life Show” (Through October 16, 2015): Just a block away from PS1 in Long Island City, the Grand Central Atelier continues to stake its claim as the anti-MOMA. In a former warehouse, the classical revivalist teacher Jacob Collins continues to run his ever-expanding, off-the-grid school for painters who want to study traditional technique. Like last year, the school has organized a fall “Still Life Show” of teachers and students in a space they call Eleventh Street Arts, carved out of the front rooms of the school. This year the standouts are examples of trompe l'oeil, where hyper-realistic objects appear to float above the surface of the canvas in the once-popular style of painters such as Victor Dubreuil, John Haberle, and William Harnett. Like those earlier examples, the results at Eleventh Street Arts are fun to see. Samuel Hung offers examples of toys, cards, and candy apparently tacked to a cracking plaster wall in high relief. Tony Curanaj, meanwhile, is showing a breathtaking tour-de-force of table cloth and beadboard with a gumball machine so irresistible, it tempts the eye of the viewer just as it does the bees and birds seeming to fly around it. Read more about this show and others in my Gallery Chronicle in our forthcoming October issue. —JP

Music: Anna Bolena, by Donizetti, at the Metropolitan Opera (September 26, 2015–January 9, 2016): Last week, I plugged an upcoming performance of a star soprano in an uncommon opera. After seeing the performance on Saturday, I'm afraid I'm going to have to plug it again: Sondra Radvanovsky's turn in the title role of Donizetti's Anna Bolena was one of the most thrilling performances I have had the pleasure to witness, and I cannot urge readers strongly enough to go see her in person. She is a superb soprano at her vocal peak, and in Anne Boleyn has found a role with plenty of room to explore and leave a lasting personal stamp. Read more here, and hurry to the box office. —ECS

From the archive: A see of troubles, by Marc M. Arkin: Speaking of Anne Boleyn, here is Marc M. Arkin on the life and death of Thomas Cranmer, from January 1997.

From our latest issue: Historical Acts, by Kyle Smith: In our forthcoming October issue, Kyle Smith will review Broadway’s breakout hit Hamilton. In the meantime, here is his review of plays from the September issue. 


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Philip Levine Remembered

by Isabella DeSendi

Posted: Sep 28, 2015 03:28 PM

Philip Levine, via


If anyone ever wanted to acquaint himself with the gritty, mechanical kingdom of 1950s depressive Detroit, he should simply pick up any collection of Philip Levine’s (1928–2015) work and feel the exhaust from flames or beaded sweat dripping from some laborer’s brow almost instantaneously. Or one could have attended the memorial service held by Levine's peers this past week at the Cooper Union where Levine’s sacred, suburban space was recreated and memorialized through a reading of his work. The memory of our 2011 Poet Laureate, who passed in February 2015, was cradled fondly in The Great Hall by poets, peers, and strangers alike, all somehow influenced by Levine's expansive writing career. The lineup of friends who presented included Juan Felipe Herrera, Toi Derricotte, Dorianne Laux, Sharon Olds, Tom Sleigh, and others, and the night ended with a sentimental showing of Levine reading his piece "Burial Rites," his wife, Fran, watching delicately from the front row. The lines, "Think of it/ my name, no longer a portion of me . . . the roots of the eucalyptus/ I planted in '73/ a tiny me taking nothing/ giving nothing, free at last" managed to stir something in all of us as Levine's voice hovered from the speakers and hung in the high ceilings. Perhaps it was a shared, sad gratitude for the late poet, or maybe it was the visceral, introspective response his work often conjures, a consideration of what we too will leave behind. 


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James Panero on "Best of Enemies"

by Benjamin Riley

Posted: Sep 28, 2015 11:00 AM



This year marks the release, and revisiting, of what many consider to be a seminal moment in television history: ABC's debates between William F. Buckley, Jr and Gore Vidal. In their film, Best of Enemies, Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville bring the famous debates to a contemporary audience that may only know them through dinner party whispers; 1968 seems a long time ago, indeed. Much has been said about the debates: how Buckley lost his cool, how Vidal "played dirty," but the only way to assess these conjectures is to actually see the film. 

In the meantime, head over to City Journal for an analysis from our own James Panero on the effects of the debate on what we now call "political punditry." 


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In case you missed it

by Benjamin Riley

Posted: Sep 25, 2015 12:58 PM

Eustache Le Sueur, Caligula Depositing the Ashes of his Mother and Brother in the Tomb of his Ancestors, 1647/ Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015


Recent links of note:

Beneath Chicago’s Gloss
Aaron Renn, City Journal
Walk around downtown Chicago, the gleaming lake on one side and stunning skyscrapers on the other, and one is likely to think he stands in a city that has got it all figured out. If only that were the case. Behind Chicago’s luminous façade is a city in turmoil facing a massive budget shortfall and turning to increasingly baroque financial maneuvers to attempt to overcome the lingering issues. This week Aaron Renn explores how the city and state of Illinois have gotten the economics of the city so wrong, concluding that continual buck-passing and the abeyance of responsibility are to blame.

Monuments to Liberty
Jonathan Clarke, The Times Literary Supplement
As the TLS, that formidable home for English literary criticism, said of itself, “we don’t often do scoops, and a History Editor is used to being teased that his idea of a scoop is a story about something that happened more than 200 years ago.” But this week may prove an exception to that rule, with the publication of Jonathan Clark’s findings that Thomas Paine may not have written the whole of the Rights of Man. If that is the case, does our understanding of the French Revolution change? Head over to the TLS to find out.

Jeremy Corbyn isn’t like Caligula’s horse—he’s like Caligula
Tom Holland, The Spectator
As mentioned last week, we’re still trying to sort out what exactly happened in England to occasion the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition. But historical parallels sometimes help to illuminate our current age and in that vein, Tom Holland thinks there’s much to be learned about Mr. Corbyn through the study of mad Caligula. One choice example is Caligula’s original version of Corbyn’s “people’s quantitative easing”—standing on a basilica rooftop showering the people below with coins. As Holland sagely puts it, “Truly, talk of a new politics is one of the oldest things under the sun.”

In Belgium, Mayonnaise Makers Want a New Recipe
Tom Fairless, The Wall Street Journal
Is there nothing sacred? Apparently in Belgium the answer is no. Mayonnaise, which is required by Belgian law to contain at least 80% fat and 7.5% egg yolk, is under attack. In the rest of Europe, the condiment may be sold with only 70% fat and 5% yolk, making it cheaper to produce. But these continental rivals lack the tradition and quality of their Belgian counterparts. Just ask Philippe Lartique, chef at Brasseries Georges, one of Brussels’s best restaurants. To him, “It’s like comparing a chicken raised by a farmer with a factory hen.” Well said, and please, pass the frites.

From our pages:

The untold story of Reconstruction
Gene Dattel
The South is largely blamed for the failure of Reconstruction, but what of the North’s responsibility?


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Intro to Luto

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Sep 24, 2015 01:45 PM

The composer, Witold Lutoslawski, via


Witold Lutoslawski, the Polish composer, lived from 1913 to 1994. In other words, he was born just before World War I and died three years after the collapse of the Soviet empire. Comes now a CD comprising two of his works: the Piano Concerto and the Symphony No. 2.

The concerto is one of the more popular piano concertos in the modern repertory. You may say that this is not a large claim. You would be right. In any event, Leif Ove Andsnes played this work with the New York Philharmonic in the 2001–02 season. In my “New York Chronicle” for the magazine, I said, “The Lutoslawski is a clever and exciting work,” which may well be “here to stay.”

Lutoslawski wrote it, or completed it, in 1988. It is dedicated to the pianist Krystian Zimerman, the composer’s fellow Pole, who premiered it at the Salzburg Festival. Later, he recorded it, with the composer on the podium. Zimerman has been the work’s champion—and it’s he who is the soloist on the new CD.

This CD, from Deutsche Grammophon, comes from a live performance, or performances, in September 2013. The orchestra is the Berlin Philharmonic, and the conductor is its music director, Sir Simon Rattle.

The concerto is in four movements, and requires virtuosity on the part of both soloist and orchestra. Nimbleness is the order of the day. As in Tchaikovsky, the woodwinds have a particular chance to show off. Sometimes the music is shimmering and French. Sometimes it is aggressive, quasi-violent. The concerto is crafted with care and skill.

In my above-mentioned chronicle, I called the work “clever and exciting,” and it is. But I sometimes wonder whether Lutoslawski is playing around with composition rather than really composing. To me, the concerto gets a little busy. The motto of contemporary music could be “Busy busy busy.” On some pages, the Lutoslawski concerto strikes me as an exercise by a very smart man, who, in fact, started out in math.

But I will stick with “clever and exciting,” and also “precise and refined.” And “impassioned and beautiful.” The forces on this CD do the concerto full justice. They have all the virtuosity, understanding, and commitment required.

Lutoslawski’s Symphony No. 2 predates the concerto by twenty years. He completed it in 1967. It is in just two movements, but fairly long movements. And those movements bear interesting, even charming, markings: “Hésitant” and “Direct.” Lutoslawski employs a method that he dubbed “limited aleatoricism,” that second word meaning “the incorporation of chance into the process of creation.” (I have quoted trusty Wikipedia.)

I will be brief. The first movement, “Hésitant,” is to my ears something of a math test. I do not doubt its brilliance. I have some doubts about its musical worth. “Direct” brings more math, but also much excitement, or certainly noise—rhythmically arresting noise. “Noise,” I hasten to say, is not (necessarily) a putdown. It’s sometimes hard to have music without it.

Obviously, I’m not quite committed to the Symphony No. 2. But Sir Simon and the Berliners are. And you may be too, on hearing it. The new CD can serve as an introduction to Lutoslawski, presented by people who love and appreciate him.


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In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.


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